Ada Lovelace was a pioneer. The daughter of Lord Byron, Ada was also the daughter of a woman fed up with Lord Byron. In an effort to dampen the dangerous poetic blood in her daughter, she encouraged, and I use that word lightly, her progeny to study mathematics, or really anything except poetry. Despite this, Ada would enjoy poetry and mathematics, asking her mother in a letter if she couldn’t have poetry, could she at least have “poetical science”? And science was poetic to Ada.
While everyone else was likely bored to tears at a dinner party when old Babbage droned on about his Analytical Engine, Ada was fascinated. She liked it so much that she began corresponding with him, even writing up notes on Menabrea’s summary of Babbage’s plans.
In those notes, Ada predicted that a machine like the one Babbage was planning would one day be used to compose music, produce graphics and would be employed for practical and scientific use. Of course, like many of the great visionaries, she left us far too young, dying of illness at age 36.
We celebrate Ada not for her visions of computers that would one day bring us joy and pain, but because she suggested a plan for the engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, and that algorithm is now considered the first computer program. In honor of Lady Lovelace, we have chosen to highlight three remarkable women who made the earth just a little cooler for having been a part of it, just like Ada.
Dr. James Barry
Note: James Barry chose to live life as a man, so despite anatomy, I’ve chosen to refer to James as ‘he’ throughout this post.
Some time in the late 1790s, the person who would come to be known as James Barry was born. Records then not being what they are now, and the fact that James lived his life cloaked in mystery, we are not entirely sure how his childhood unfolded. What we do know is that James was known then as Margaret Bulkley, impoverished niece of the famous Irish artist, James Barry.
By 1809, Margaret Bulkley was no more, and James Barry had begun his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, to later graduate with a Medical Doctorate. He moved on to become Assistant Staff Surgeon at the Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth, and later to hold the position of Medical Inspector for the British Colony of South Africa, in Cape Town. While there, he performed the first successful cesarean birth in Africa; successful because mom and baby both survived.
His later postings took him to many Crown holdings, including Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Malta, Corfu, Saint Helena, the Crimea, Jamaica, Canada, the West Indies and Malta.
His career, which began as a hospital assistant and ended with the rank of inspector-general of hospitals (Canada), was long and storied. James survived yellow fever, fought for sanitation and hygiene, encouraged healthy food for patients and soldiers, was a vegetarian and teetotaler, and crusaded for better treatment for commoners and the poor. Glowing reviews of his person not withstanding, his behavior was a little unorthodox. He fought duels to prove his masculinity, was reported to be blunt and impatient when sharing his opinions and was punished throughout his career for breaking the rules, at least once resulting in a demotion of real significance. He was hot-tempered, but damn good at doctoring.
James died in 1865, of dysentery, and it was upon his death that his charade was uncovered, literally. Why Margaret became James is hotly debated. I won’t guess, but mad props to this lady who fought for the poor, healed the sick and fought her duels as good as any man.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
The next doctor on our list is famous for her bluntly specific sex help, but her story is so much more than that. Ruth Westheimer was born in 1928, the adored and spoiled only child of doting Jewish parents in Germany. Her idyllic childhood would soon end with the Nazi arrest of her father in the late 30s. Her mom promptly sent her to safety in Switzerland with plans to meet after the mixup was worked out. Both of her parents likely died in concentration camps, writing letters to her until 1941 when the letters abruptly ceased.
After reaching her majority in the Swiss orphanage, she went to Palestine, joining an underground Jewish military group. Trained as a sniper, she never had to kill anyone but did suffer a serious injury, after shrapnel from a bomb pierced both of her legs.
After a long and painful recovery, she went to Paris, studying and later teaching at the Sorbonne. She used the small amount that Germany paid her in reparations, around $1,500, to book passage to New York. It was a stint at Planned Parenthood that convinced her to study human sexuality.
Once shocked by the frank talk about sexuality she heard in New York, she later came to embrace it. And who among us doesn’t remember the little old lady who was always talking about penises, vaginas and orgasms as blithely as if she were discussing a grocery list. Dr. Ruth helped many of us embrace our sexuality as normal and healthy, and in doing so made her mark on the world in a mighty way. And she’s not done yet. Her latest book, about caring for a parent with Alzheimers is due to be released in November.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe, or Mildred, Didrikson, was the sixth child, of seven, born to Norwegian immigrants in 1911 in south Texas. Though not a strong student — she failed 8th grade and eventually dropped out — Babe was destined for greatness. She embraced all sports in school, playing for the all-city and all-state teams.
Her first adult job was as a secretary for an insurance firm, hired because she was an ace at b-ball and they wanted her to join their company team, the Golden Cyclones. In what would become a habit, her team was victorious, snagging the AAU Basketball Championships in 1931. From there, she went on to represent Employers Casualty Insurance Co. of Dallas at the AAU 1932 Championships, competing in eight of the 10 events held, and qualifying for the Olympics to boot. I should point out that she also marched in the opening parade as the entire team, because in essence, she was.
She won five of the eight events, and tied for the sixth. At that competition, she broke four (FOUR!) women’s world records. Her score of 30 points was eight points higher than the second-place winner.
As you can imagine, Babe caused a stir and it wasn’t just because she was a somewhat arrogant and insanely competitive lady. She was also a rock-star athlete and had the chops to back up that chip she proudly wore on her extremely fit shoulders. She excelled at everything, from playing her harmonica (in Vaudeville) to sewing (Babe won a championship for that too).
She went from there to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She could only do three events there, darn rule book, but took the gold in two of them, breaking world records in both events. In the high jump, she had to accept the silver due to a rule violation. She went over head first, which was against the rules at the time. Her height was the same as the gold medalist, but diving over was a foul in 1932. It was not very long at all after this that they changed that rule. Later she would be credited with tying the world record in that jump too, and tying for the gold.
Babe’s celebrity status was assured with the strong showing. Unfortunately, amateur athletes don’t get paid, and getting paid was what Babe needed most. She had to turn pro to pay the bills, so she posed for an automobile advertisement and thus began the Babe Didrikson campaign for fun and profit. She did some vaudeville, took part in MLB stunts, toured with a women’s basketball team, Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans, and then an all-bearded team (other than herself), called the House of David. Babe married a wrestler, taking his name, and Babe Didrikson was now Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
A massively talented athlete, Babe made a name for herself in track and field, basketball, baseball, tennis, diving, billiards and later golf, only taking it up after her fame in basketball and track and field was achieved. But she was no slouch there either. After winning the Texas Women’s Championship in 1935, the Golf Association in a dastardly move, declared that Babe wasn’t to be considered a golf amateur because she was a pro in other sports, “for the best interest of the game.” They changed their mind in 1945, making her an amateur again, and in 1945 she won 13 consecutive tournaments. When she chose to turn pro in 1947, she won all of the tournaments, save one. Bobby Jones, yes, THE Bobby Jones, called her one of the 10 best golfers of all time, male or female.
A few of her achievements:
•2 Olympic world records
•2 Olympic gold medals
•1 tied Olympic world record
•1 tied Olympic gold medal/1 Olympic silver medal
•First American to win the British Women’s Amateur
•First American to win both the British Women’s Amateur and the American Women’s Amateur
•Won U.S. Women’s Open, World Championship and the All-American Open in 1948
•First Woman to win the Western Open three times (as an amateur and pro)
•Member of the Ladies Golf Hall of Fame
•Co-counded LPGA 1949
•Named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press (1945-1947, 1950, 1954)
In 1953 she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite removing the tumor, the cancer had spread and she was told she would die. In 1954 she won the U.S. Women’s Open for the third time, by 12 strokes, but the pain was too great to continue, so she retired from golf. She died a year later at age 45.
Now you know the story of three awesome women. Go and enjoy your Ada Lovelace day in a grand style!